Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer”

BLOG #27, SERIES 6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #42
MARK TWAIN’S TOM SAWYER
July 8, 2015

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It is fitting that we follow up last month’s selection, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, the first great and timeless book ever written in America specifically for girls, with Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, the first great and timeless book ever written in America specifically for boys.

What intrigues me no little is now modern each book was: how both authors suck the reader into the book with that very first sentence. Both authors, scorning preambles, leap immediately into the heart of their book (most unusual for the time to start in the middle of a conversation).

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First: Little Women

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.
“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy with an injured sniff.
“We’ve got Father and Mother and each other,” said Beth contentedly from her corner.

Now re-read those four lines. This time note how completely Alcott captures the essence of each of the sisters in those four lines.

Now, let’s see what Twain does with his beginning lines:

“Tom!”
No answer.
“Tom!”
No answer.
“What’s wrong with that boy, I wonder. “You TOM!”
No answer.
The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them about the room; then she put them up and looked out under them. She seldom or never looked through them for so small a thing as a boy; they were her state pair, the pride of her heart, and were built for “style,” not service—she could have seen through a pair of stove lids just as well. She looked perplexed for a moment, and then said, not fiercely, but still loud enough for the furniture to hear:
“Well, I lay if I get hold of you I’ll—”

* * *

Both are priceless beginnings.

Little Women was published in 1868 – 1869. Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was published in 1876, eight years later. So clearly Twain had eight years to ponder the one-of-a-kind phenomenon that was Little Women before he launched Tom Sawyer. In the Airmont edition of the book are these words:

But it was in 1876, with the publication of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, that unforgettable excursion into the private province of the very young that Twain attained the stature of greatness. Lively, touching, penetrating—the whitewashing incident is one of literature’s wittiest dramatizations of applied psychology—Tom Sawyer is one of those rare novels that become more endearing with each reading. Its beloved sequel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in 1884, is immortal.”

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Samuel Langhorne Clemens [Mark Twain was a pseudonym] (1835 – 1910), is one of the very few American writers who reached the very pinnacle of both popular and academic success—and who has stayed there for over a century, not just in novels, but in short stories as well. His books are still read by generation after generation of readers. Books such as—

The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (1865-1867)
The Innocents Abroad (1869)
Roughing It (1872)
The Gilded Age, with Charles Dudley Warner (1873)
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)
A Tramp Abroad (1880)
The Stolen White Elephant (1882)
The Prince and the Pauper (1882)
Life on the Mississippi (1883)
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889)
The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894)
Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894)
Tom Sawyer, Detective (1896)
Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896)
Following the Equator (1897)
The Mysterious Stranger (1916), etc.

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In his later books, due to many reasons, Twain became embittered and cynical about the human race. He had reasons. Late in life, he suffered through personal tragedy after tragedy. In 2010, sealed for a hundred years, Twain’s autobiography saw light at once, becoming an instant bestseller.

* * * * *

There are many editions of Tom Sawyer. Just make certain you get an unabridged copy. My personal favorite edition is the Heritage Press boxed edition, wonderfully illustrated in color by Norman Rockwell. Huckleberry Finn was also boxed and illustrated as a companion book. Another splendid edition is the 1931 John C. Winston hardback edition, illustrated by Peter Hurd.

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Even if you’ve read the book before—you owe it to yourself to read it again. It never grows old!

Dr. Joe’s Book of the Month – Johanna Spyri’s “Heidi”

BLOG #31, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #32
JOHANNA SPYRI’S HEIDI
July 30, 2014

I’ve thought long and hard about the book you’ll be reading in August. In the calendar of the year, August is one of those rare in-between months, a time to veg out, get away, go to the beach or mountains, take a cruise, regenerate–for September, life-gets-back-to-normal–
September looms up at the end of August. But, please, we grouse, not yet, not yet.

Undoubtedly, you’ve noticed by how that my Book of the Month selections don’t fit into any book club mold you’ve ever encountered anywhere else. Much more eclectic, for starters. And less academic than you’d expect from a college English professor. In truth, it has taken me this long to arrive at a clear picture of what the Series template is likely to be. I can now tell you how I perceive it: It is neither more nor less than a library of much-loved books that, had you read no more than those chosen you’d still feel your life had been enriched in ways past quantifying. For they are–most of them–books you’ll want to return to again and again. Some, just to have read them once will be enough. Hopefully, you’ll want to keep all the selections together in one part of your library.

But for the August selection, I am returning to one of the most beloved family books of all time. It has been translated into over 50 languages; it has sold over 50,000,000 copies, and has been filmed over a dozen times. As is true with every book children love, adults cherish it every bit as much. Of course, I’m referring to Heidi.

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[Jessie Willcox Smith’s wondrous cover painting for the McKay edition]

It was with some trepidation that I scanned the Spyri section of my library for the Heidi edition I’d re-read before writing this blog. Would it be the Airmont paperback edition or the rare Pocket Book 1940 First printing? The John C. Winston edition, with four lovely Clara M. Burd illustrations in color? Or would it be the 1922 David McKay edition with ten stunning illustrations by Jessie Willcox Smith? It was a no-brainer! It is no wonder that the asking price of any magazine cover that features Smith’s inimitable children has reached the stratosphere where dwells the likes of Maxfield Parrish, Rose Cecil O’Neill, Howard Pyle, and Elizabeth Shippen Green. If you can land a fine copy, ignore the price, and grab it before it’s sold to someone else.

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But whatever you do, don’t be satisfied with anything less than the complete unabridged text. In recent years, it has become acceptable in certain circles to strip all positive references to spiritual things from classic books. This is true also of Heidi books. And glaringly, in Heidi movies.

What I discovered in my re-read was that it is a profoundly spiritual book. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “Johanna Spyri, neé Hausser (1829-1901), a writer whose story for children, Heidi, is known all over the world. Her psychological insight into the child mind, her humor, and her ability to enter into childish joys and sorrows give her books attraction and lasting value. After her marriage in 1852 to Bernhard Spyri, a lawyer engaged in editorial work, she moved to Zurich. Her love of homeland, feeling for nature, unobtrusive piety, and cheerful wisdom gave both her work and her life their unique quality.”
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Adeline B. Zachert, in her most insightful introduction to the 1927 John C. Winston edition of Heidi, noted that “Character grows from ideals. It is caught by contagion. One may catch it from one’s companions; children often learn of it from the friends who live within the covers of their story books; these characters become the companions of their thoughts. They become real; they live and act in the imagination of children, and often exert a greater influence than do the flesh-and-blood associates with whom they daily come in contact.” Ms. Zachert (then head librarian for the state of Pennsylvania) pointed out that a child’s first response to a book generally depends on its outward appearance (color and texture of the binding, the decoration and imagery on the cover, and especially splendid color depictions of paintings by artists who know how to capture the essence of a character or setting). But after the first impressions, it is the power of the story itself that take it from there.

Other books written by Spyri include Cornelli, Moni the Goat Boy, Children of the Alps, Stories of Swiss Children, Heidi Grows Up (always popuolar), Mazli, Uncle Titus in the Country, Toni the Little Wood-Carver, Heidi’s Children, Erick and Sally, Gritli’s Children, The Story of Rico, Rico and Wiseli, Veronica and Other Friends, and What Sarni Sings with the Birds.

CONCLUSION

So, don’t delay, if there are children in your vicinity, read Heidi out loud to them, or take turns reading it out loud; if there are no children around, read it to yourself. You’ll be surprised at how much you will revel in the story, and the insights you’ll gain from immersing yourself in this timeless book. If you see a film version of the story, only do so after you’ve read the book! Otherwise you deprive yourself and your listeners of the once-in-a-lifetime experience of creating mental images uniquely your own.